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Persons with chronic hepatitis C (a viral infection that causes inflammation of the liver) are at an increased risk for developing liver cancer. Recent efforts have evaluated the use of antiviral therapy to slow progression of viral damage to the liver and perhaps delay or prevent the development of liver cancer in persons with hepatitis C. Now, results from a recent study in Japan published in the International Journal of Cancer indicate that antiviral treatment with interferon appears to reduce the risk of developing liver cancer in patients with hepatitis C.

Primary liver cancer, sometimes called hepatocellular cancer, is characterized by cancer that starts in cells of the liver and can spread, through blood and lymph vessels, to different parts of the body. The liver is the largest organ in the body and is responsible for over 500 functions, including the secretion of glucose, proteins, vitamins and fats, the production of bile, the processing of hemoglobin and the detoxification of numerous substances.

In a recent clinical study, researchers evaluated over 700 patients that had been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C, to determine if treatment with interferon reduced the incidence of the development of liver cancer in these patients. Interferon is a biologic agent, which stimulates the patient’s own immune system to attack the virus. Patients treated with interferon therapy had a 48% decreased risk of developing liver cancer compared to those patients who were not treated with interferon. However, older patients with more advanced hepatitis were at a higher risk of developing liver cancer whether treated or not with interferon. Eight years following diagnosis of hepatitis C, the survival rate of patients receiving interferon was 97% compared to 81% for patients not receiving interferon therapy.

The results of this study indicate that interferon therapy appears to significantly lower the incidence of liver cancer and may improve long term survival in patients with chronic hepatitis C compared to those who do not receive antiviral treatment. Persons with chronic hepatitis C may wish to speak to their doctor about the use of an antiviral agent or about the risks and benefits of participating in a clinical trial utilizing promising new antiviral strategies.

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(International Journal of Cancer, Vol 87, pp 741-749, 2000)